8:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Clemson -5.5, Over/Under: 63.5
As we creep closer to the playoff, it’s appropriate that the Orange Bowl will feature combatants wearing different shades of that very color, as the sixth-ranked Tennessee Volunteers battle the eighth-ranked Clemson Tigers in this showdown from Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. In many ways, 2022 served as a rebirth for Tennessee (10-2, 6-2 in SEC), who in just their second season under the watchful eye of (Head Coach) Josh Heupel have managed to wash away the embarrassment of the previous regime and win ten games for the first time since 2007. Once upon a time, the Volunteers were considered royalty within the SEC, winning thirteen conference championships from 1938 to 1998, along with six national championships during that same period of time. During the Phil Fulmer era (1993 to 2008), they enjoyed their most successful run, winning ten or more games on eight occasions, including a pair of SEC titles and the very first BCS National Championship in 1998. However, hard times befell Rocky Top following Fulmer’s departure, with the Vols authoring seven losing seasons over the next twelve years and an overall record of 78-82 (.487), including a miserable 33-65 mark (.336) in league play, with four different coaches contributing to said dumpster fire. Thankfully, Heupel has proven to be a home run hire for (Athletic Director) Danny White, who was in dire need of one following the Jeremy Pruitt disaster. After guiding UCF to 28-8 record and an appearance in the 2018 Fiesta Bowl, the 44-year-old was due for a step-up, with Tennessee in need of someone to pull them out of the proverbial doldrums. Though some may have questioned his move from the AAC to the SEC and how his rapid-fire, prolific Offense would translate to the strongest conference in the country, the former Oklahoma Quarterback has proved the doubters wrong, winning seventeen of his first twenty-five games in charge of the Vols, who started an unbeaten 8-0 before falling Athens to the reigning national champions, Georgia, in a 27-13 affair. Along the way, the Volunteers bested Florida (38-33), LSU (40-13), and mighty Alabama (52-49), rising as high as number two in the AP Polls before facing the Bulldogs. Unfortunately, disaster struck in a 63-38 drubbing at the hands of South Carolina, which saw would-be Heisman Finalist, Hendon Hooker tear his ACL, ending his career in Knoxville. It was a sad day indeed, for the Virginia Tech transfer had been the fulcrum of Heupel’s system, throwing for 6,080 yards and fifty-eight touchdowns over the last two season, while rushing for 1,046 yards and ten more scores to boot. Hooker was a HUGE part of the highest-scoring attack in the country (47.3 points per game), with the void left in his wake filled by (Junior Quarterback) Jo Milton, a former transfer from Michigan, who in eight games this season has completed 63.0% of his passes for720 yards on a very healthy 13.3 yards per attempt, with seven touchdowns and no interceptions. In his lone start of the campaign, a 56-0 shutout of Vanderbilt (much more on that one in a bit), Milton (pictured below) was content simply managing the game, completing just 11-of-21 passes for 147 yards and a touchdown. Heupel has proven that he can shift to the ground game when needed, churning out 206.0 yards per game on 5.1 yards per carry, with (Sophomore Tailbacks) Jabari Small and Jaylin Wright rushing for 699 and 786 yards respectively, accounting for a combined twenty-two touchdowns between them.
When we last saw Tennessee, they bounced back nicely following that miserable showing against South Carolina, taking out their frustrations on bitter rivals, Vanderbilt, in a one-sided 56-0 affair. This was their fourth straight victory over the Commodores, and their largest victory in the series since 1994 (65-0). This one was all about the run, with the Volunteers absolutely trampling the hosts to the tune of a season-high 362 rushing yards, and all it took to get there was thirty-one carries, meaning that they were gashing them on 11.6 yards per carry! Three different Vols posted over 70+ yards, with Small totaling seventy-nine yards and a pair of touchdowns on eleven carries, while Wright added another 160 yards and two scores of his own on just five attempts. However, (Freshman Tailback) Dylan Samson enjoyed the biggest day of his young career, erupting for 131 yards and a touchdown on a dozen rushes. When it was all said and done, the visitors racked up 513 total yards in comparison to just 254 for the home side, who were left coughing in their dust. Looking to tonight’s matchup on South Beah, the Volunteers are appearing in their fifty-fifth bowl, owning a 29-25 record (.537) in these postseason affairs, with their most recent offering a wild 48-45 loss to Purdue in las winter’s Music City Bowl. Heupel hasn’t been great when it comes to bowls, posting a 1-3 record (.250), and has yet to lead the Vols to victory in this regard. From a betting perspective, Tennessee has made people some money of late, covering the spread in seven out of their last ten games overall, though have been .500 in that regard away from Neyland Stadium. Unfortunately, being an underdog hasn’t suited them one bit, for when getting points over their last ten contests, they’ve failed to cover the spread on seven occasions. Furthermore, while the Volunteers have covered in each of their last four non-conference affairs, they’re 0-4 against the spread in their last four outings at neutral sites, which is the case tonight. On the injury front, we know that the aforementioned Hooker will be out for tonight’s Orange Bowl, but Heupel will also be without a pair of prominent playmakers, including (Sophomore Receiver) Jalin Hyatt and (Junior Wideout) Cedric Tillman, who will each forego participating in this contest in favor of declaring for the NFL Draft. Though Tillman appeared in just six games due to injury, he still managed to haul in thirty-seven receptions for 417 yards and three touchdowns, while Hyatt led the SEC in catches (67), receiving yards (1,267), and receiving touchdowns (15).
Meanwhile, after falling well short of their lofty expectations last season, Clemson (11-2, 8-0 in ACC) bounced back rather nicely in 2022, winning their eighth conference championship since 2011. Indeed, there was quite a bit of uncertainty regarding the Tigers coming into this season, for after falling short of the playoff for the first time since in six years, (Head Coach) Dabo Swinney was facing a plethora of questions regarding his coaching staff and the ongoing situation at Quarterback. Seriously, Swinney became a victim of his own success, for how many schools can you name that would treat a 10-3 finish and fourteenth in the final AP Poll like it was the end of the world? The 53-year-old has put together a ridiculous 161-38 (.809) record since taking over back in 2008, and led the Tigers to TWO National Championships, and nearly two more, all the while raising the program to the level of the elite alongside Alabama and Ohio State. Coming into this season, Swinney had to replace both his Offensive and Defensive Coordinators, as Tony Elliott and Brett Venables became the new Head Coaches for Virginia and Oklahoma respectively. He also had a conundrum with (Sophomore Quarterback) D.J. Uiagalelei on his hands, for after arriving on campus to much hype and balling out in place of Trevor Lawrence for a couple of games back in 2020, authored a very uneven 2021, his first as the starter. The hulking passer completed just 55.6% of his passes for 2,246 yards, nine touchdowns and ten interceptions last year, serving as the poster boy for a misfiring attack that was the worst that Swinney presided over in years. However, with nine returning starters on that side of the football, improvement was expected out of the California native, and though he did perform better, he spent much of the season locked within an ongoing competition with (Freshman Quarterback) Cade Klubnik. Indeed, Uiagalelei started all thirteen games, completing 61.9% of his passes for 2,521 yards, with twenty-two touchdowns in comparison to seven interceptions, while rushing for 545 yards and another seven scores to boot, though he rarely stretched opposing defenses, netting just 6.8 yards per attempt. This is where Klubnik (pictured below) likely won Swinney over, for despite throwing just forty-six passes across nine games, the Redshirt Frosh netted a much healthier 8.2 yards per attempt, while also proving his ability to make plays with his feet, rushing for eighty-eight yards and a score of his own. After Uiagalelei struggled MIGHTILY in the regular season finale against (bitter rival) South Carolina, in which he could muster just ninety-nine yards on 8-of-29 passing, Klubnik received the starting nod for Clemson’s ACC Championship Game showdown with North Carolina, and for all intents and purposes earned his keep with 279 yards and a touchdown on an efficient 20-of-24 passing in the Tigers’ 39-10 drubbing of the Tar Heels (much more on this shortly). Apparently, that was the final straw for Uiagalelei, who announced last week that he would be entering the transfer portal and taking his talents to Oregon State, paving the way for Klubnik to be the undisputed starter.
When we last saw Clemson, they returned to their throne as champions of the Atlantic Coast Conference on the strength of a 39-10 beatdown of North Carolina, which was a completely one-sided as it looked. Though the Tar Heels would score on their opening drive, it was all Tigers from there on, with Swinney’s troops running off TWENTY-FOUR unanswered points to end the first half. During that stretch, Klubnik threw a short score to (Junior Tight End) Davis Allen, before running it in himself on the third drive. The second half was certainly less eventful than the first, though there were still some fireworks to be seen, as (Sophomore Cornerback) Nate Wiggins intercepted (UNC Quarterback) Drake Maye in the just in front of the end zone, returning it NINETY-EIGHT yards to paydirt, putting the game well out of their opponent’s reach. In the end, we covered Klubnik’s stat line already, though he also rushed for thirty yards with that aforementioned touchdown scamper. (Freshman Receiver) Cole Turner was seldom used this season, though emerged as a future playmaker in this contest, hauling three receptions for 101 yards. Defensively, Clemson really got after Maye, sacking him four times and pressuring him on countless others, with (Sophomore Linebacker) Jeremiah Trotter Jr. dropping him thrice to go along with nine tackles. The turnovers were clearly the difference in this affair, for the two sides were nearly equal in total yardage (385-386), though Maye two interceptions and a lost fumble tilted the balance squarely in favor of the cats. Looking at tonight’s matchup in South Florida, the Tigers are making their forty-ninth appearance in a bowl, owning a 26-22 (.542) in these postseason affairs, with Swinney posting an 11-7 (.611) mark in that regard. Last winter, these cats toppled Iowa State in the Cheez-It Bowl, despite that venue being a considerable step down in prestige when compared to their typical winter battles. From a betting perspective, Clemson is 6-4 against the spread over their last ten games overall, though have been easy money away from Death Valley, covering the spread in all but three of their last ten away games. As a favorite, they’re 6-4 against the spread, though have been on a tear in their last four bowls, covering the spread in all of them. With that said, they’ve failed to cover the spread in each of their last four non-conference games, which is the case tonight. On the injury front, we already covered Uiagalelei’s transfer away to the Pacific Northwest, but (Junior Linebacker) Trenton Simpson will be foregoing tonight’s Orange Bowl after declaring for the NFL Draft. Simpson was an active member of one of the best Defenses in the country, ranking second on the team with seventy-two tackles, along with four for loss, 2.5 sacks, three defended passes, and a pair of forced fumbles.